Public Wireless Networks make sense and can work with existing private networks to provide the communications link necessary for electric utilities to create a smarter grid. This was the consensus of four panelists, three from top public wireless carriers and one from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), who spoke at the SmartSynch Conference 2010 in late April in New Orleans.
Nick Sinai, FCC’s energy and environment director, told the audience that the recently released National Broadband Plan, which includes a chapter addressing the relevance, considerations and recommendations for smart grid, is a five- to 10-year vision for the nation’s broadband networks.
He said there is no simple answer when it comes to electric utility applications and that creating a communication system to support smart grids will be complex and will require multiple paths.
Sinai was clear about one thing, however: commercial networks should be part of electricity providers’ smart grid communications networks. Public networks will remove impediments and make it possible to leverage existing infrastructure, he said. Sinai believes open standards need to be developed, security issues need to be addressed and best practices need to be shared. He also believes that not only should the FCC promote a broadband initiative, but states should also get involved.
The three other panelists, Chris Hill, AT&T‘s Mobility Product Management vice president, John Horn, T-Mobile’s M2M national director, and Mansell Nelson, Rogers Wireless M2M & Partners’ vice president, are happy with the National Broadband Plan and hope it convinces those in the electric utility industry that public networks make sense and can work with private networks.
An audience member questioned the panelists about public networks’ bandwidth availability, especially during disasters, such as earthquakes and hurricanes, when the volume of cellular phone calls increases dramatically in the disaster area. This is a time in which bandwidth availability is paramount for utilities.
Sinai said the FCC is working with the Department of Homeland Security to prioritize packet data. In addition he said the FCC needs to learn more about the reliability and security of commercial wireless networks.
Hill said that the functionality of AT&T’s network is being enhanced to support higher level security traffic.
The audience also questioned the panel about latency, which refers to delays typically incurred in network data processing.
T-Mobile’s Horn said that latency decreases with each generation of new technology, but it becomes more expensive.
“Does the smart grid really need 3G?” he asked. “Most studies show that 2G is adequate for smart grid applications.”
Sinai said the smart grid covers a broad area and latency needs depend on the application.
One issue that drew a lot of attention and discussion was interoperability. Nelson with Canada-based Rogers Wireless said interoperability starts at the standards level.
“This needs to be solved and then things will start to happen,” he said. “Apps that we never dreamed of have been developed for cellular. The same will happen in the utility sector if we find sensible standards and make it easy for companies and customers.”
Nelson said many companies, including companies using Rogers Wireless’ networks, are investing heavily in the cellular sector. He said services and products can be provided by companies other than Rogers Wireless using Roger’s networks, in much the same way he expects smart grid applications to be delivered some day.
Nelson said an ecosystem needs to be developed to make this happen. Vendors will help drive and develop this ecosystem. He stressed the importance of making technology and applications easy for customers to adopt.
Sinai said the federal government is taking a role in standards, including those that will affect commercial carriers. He said commercial carriers, such as those represented on the panel, need to get involved in this standards development process.
One of the biggest issues on the audience’s mind was how the cost of a public network compares to that of a private network.
Horn said investments in the cellular infrastructure far outweigh investments in any other alternative communications infrastructure.
“I don’t believe all utility applications should use public (wireless) networks,” he said, “but the bulk of the applications can be operated with public networks.”
Cellular companies are good at what they do—building, maintaining and operating public networks, Horn said. “We do a good job of making ourselves invisible and that allows others to manage their needs using our network.”
Hill said a big misconception about cellular networks today is that they are as expensive as private networks. He said studies show that the actual cost of using public networks is less than that of private networks when management and ongoing operational costs are included.
He said estimates show that an electric utility will spend $110 million over 10 years for a private network compared to $54 million during 10 years for a public network that performs the same functions. Another advantage of a public vs. private network is that utilities don’t have to add the cost of a public network to their capital expenditures when considering rate base.
“In most every scenario, public costs less than private,” Hill said. “Cost is not the issue anymore.”
These panel members clearly believe that public wireless networks can provide much of the functionality that will be needed to transition to a smarter grid. They also believe that using public wireless networks instead of private networks will save utilities millions of dollars.
SmartSynch‘s conference is designed to provide its customers and technology partners an opportunity to learn more about how today’s advanced communication technology is enabling the smart grid. Speakers included utility representatives, smart grid industry analysts and executives from the largest wireless network providers. In addition to the panel session on public wireless networks and the smart grid discussed in this article, the conference program included panel sessions on getting full value from smart grid investments and smart grid security.